ST KILLIAN’S in Mayfield, a special education school, is celebrating 50 years, having been founded in 1969 by John Bermingham of the COPE Foundation.
It was established because, at the time, a small but significant number of children presenting for assessment by the COPE Foundation were found not to be intellectually disabled but to have a learning difficulty. They were attending mainstream schools but were falling behind.
Now, the school has 76 pupils (boys and girls) and is growing, with 90 pupils expected in 2021. There are 12 teachers trained in diverse delivery techniques as well as the principal, Sue Lenihan and 15 special needs assistants.
“We are the only school in the country doing what we do,” says Sue.
“Technically, we’re a reading school which means you just take in children with dyslexia. But there has been an increase in children with complex needs who are cognitively able and borderline average or above.
“What we provide is quite unique. There can be a child with a combination of dyslexia and on the ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder). They wouldn’t have an intellectual disability. For some children, the context of the school they’re in doesn’t always suit them. That’s why they come to us. Afterwards, the majority go on to mainstream secondary schools.”
St Killian’s focus is on “intense provision for two or three years to bring the pupils up in reading, maths, self-esteem and wellbeing”, Sue explained.
“A lot of the children coming to us would have anxiety. Thirty-six of our pupils have a diagnosis of ASD and Asperger’s Syndrome, alongside speech and language difficulties. So there are a lot of needs.”
This 50th year of the school is, says Sue, a very special one. The anniversary “is an amazing testament to the fact that special education is very important.”
She continued: “The school has grown and changed to suit the children we serve. Originally, it was quite small.
“I think it started off as a Saturday school just for remedial purposes and reading difficulties. It has grown considerably.”
As well as the school’s landmark birthday, this year sees it in a permanent home in the former St John the Apostle national school in Mayfield. For years, the school moved around to different locations.
“It’s so important to us to have our own school premises now. We can put roots down in the community. The parish has been very welcoming. I don’t know why it took so long to get our own place.
“I’ve been principal for five years. A new school premises was promised before that. I was very concerned when I started. The accommodation we had was nice enough. But it wasn’t specific to the needs of the children. Children with special needs require classrooms that have a certain lay-out with more space, (catering to) sensory needs. They need access to outdoor space.”
The school building, owned by the diocese, was vacant when St Killian’s applied for a new school.
“It is the perfect site for us. We applied to the Department of Education for an upgrade. We have done phase one of the upgrade. We’re trying to get the rest of it finished with department funding.
“We’re also trying raise funds ourselves for another sensory room. One sensory room is not sufficient for our 36 children with an ASD diagnosis. Other children, who don’t have ASD, also like to use the sensory room. It’s a nice place to relax in.
“We’re working on creating a sensory garden and we need funds for that too.
“We need to pad out another room for sand and water play. It’s hard to get outside. We have no secure yard for ASD children. We have a big classroom which we’re going to put aside for them so that they can maybe ride bikes there. When the weather is rubbish, they’ll have somewhere to go.”
As part of their fundraising efforts, a sponsored walk was hosted at the school earlier this month and pupils have created wonderful pieces of art for an exhibition.
“We’re hoping parents will donate €5 and take the art home. We’ve got some lovely work. It ties into Creative Schools, a programme run by the Department of Education with the Arts Council.
“We had to do a survey of the children to see what they want. They all wanted clay. We created a partnership with Newbury House (a community arts centre) which is around the corner from the school. Some of the children are going to work with clay there.”
The children also requested more drama.
“They do drama to deal with transitioning onto secondary school. For our children, that can be traumatic and quite difficult. Every child going to secondary school is nervous. Ours are even more so. Graffiti Theatre Company is doing the drama.
“We also have music with Mash Up coming in to compose a song. They’re a local music group. We’re also creating a small volunteer choir. I’d say one quarter of the pupils put their hands up to be in the choir, which is quite significant.
“Some of these are children who would have had quite a few difficulties. It really brings them out. They sing beautifully. It’s lovely to see them looking so confident.”
Sue, who is English, with mainstream teaching experience in inner city London and Essex, says that special needs children were taught in mainstream classes in the UK.
“The one thing I noticed coming over to Ireland is the focus on special education provision. It’s really positive that there are resources and learning support teachers.
“When I was teaching in the UK, we had one support teacher for the whole school. It was quite hard. In Ireland, more support teachers are always needed but it’s more positive here.
“In Cork, there are some special schools specifically for children with ASD but they have to have an intellectual disability.
“Then you have mainstream schools that have special classes. There is something missing in the middle for children who are technically mainstream but don’t manage in a mainstream class. A lot of the children we take need more help than what they’d get in mainstream schools.”
Is there over-diagnosis of ASD and other conditions?
“Some people would say there is. But I think there is a lot more recognition of needs that were always there. They are now diagnosed and labelled. We’re a bit more aware now of different needs. They are not always seen. A lot of people have hidden needs.”